Guest Author - Korie Beth Brown, Ph.D.
Although Hawaii is known for its beautiful beaches and warm weather, it also hosts one of the largest mountains on Earth – the volcano Mauna Kea, which reaches nearly 34,000 miles from ocean floor to peak. Since only 13,803 miles extend above the waves, it’s not usually thought of as the tallest mountain on earth, but it does in fact extend nearly one thousand miles longer than Mount Everest.
All great mountains have their associated pantheon, and Poli’ahu, one of Hawaii’s four snow kupua or demigods, lives at Mauna Kea. This mountain is high enough that, even in these tropical climes, snow can drop in the winter months, and Poli’ahu’s beautiful white cloak, made of tree bark, represents one aspect of frozen water (the others being the mountain mist, springs, and underground resevoirs.) In true Hawaiian form, Poli’ahu loves to interact with her environment, shredding down the mountain on her sled – more recently, perhaps even on a snowboard!
A story is told of a day when a stranger appeared on Mauna Kea and asked to race Poli’ahu. The course began, and the competition was fierce, but Poli’ahu managed to defend her standing as the fastest on the mountain. Furious at having lost, the stranger unveiled herself – she was Pele, the goddess of fire, herself! Intent on revenge for her perceived humiliation at having lost, Pele ripped up the ground, causing fire and lava to cascade around the island. Poli’ahu fought back in her cool fashion, tamping down the fire with her cloak and turning the earth black in the process. To this day, she and Pele remain enemies, sometimes coming to blows again – their war has divided the geography of the island of Hawai’i. The southern part of the island belongs of Pele, and is covered with lava rocks and vents from below the earth, while the northern part is cooler, mistier, and greener from its association with Poli’ahu.
Because of its isolation and height, Mauna Kea is ideal territory for astronomy, but those who consider the mountain sacred have struggled to keep it in its natural state for Poli’ahu and her ilk. When NASA wanted to build a telescope at the very top of the mountain, its environmental impact study was challenged by Mauna Kea’s defenders. In the fracas, a sacred altar, or ahu lele, was anonymously desecrated. Volunteers braved Poli’ahu’s wrath (stinging snow and wind) to in order to rebuild, and continued their fight to challenge attempts to build scientific campuses here and atop Haleakala on the neighboring island of Maui. Those wanting to keep the mountain in its natural state eventually won when NASA ultimately withdrew its proposal and all other plans to build telescopes atop the mountains were abandoned. Those who follow the old ways must continue their vigilance in order to protect this sacred land and divine beings, like Poli’ahu, who call Mauna Kea home.